RISING needs a rethink

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Rising - The Wilds

Melbourne's new Rising "festival" is supposed to be a replacement for the both White Night (a winter outdoor spectacle) and the Melbourne Festival, the 35-year-old annual presentation of local and international arts and culture. Two quite different major events combined into one – it's a big ask. The result, you would hope, would be doubly special. Instead Rising has succeeded in being less good than either one of these now cancelled events.

Even allowing for the bad luck of the pandemic fallout, which presumably curtailed the artistic directors’ plans, the inaugural event was a disappointment, not for the artistic line-up so much as for the event’s entire raison d’etre.

It is not as good as White Night

White Night was embraced by Melbourne. It worked because it was novel and fun. It was concentrated over one night of the winter solstice (expanded to three). Cultural venues stayed open all night. It was family friendly. People shivered not just with the cold but with the childlike naughtiness of staying up all night in a magical and spooky winter wonderland. Upwards of half-a-million people poured into the city. It was a party – but it wasn’t the same as an arts festival. (Interestingly, Victoria's regional towns of Geelong and Bendigo are keeping theirs, with Shepparton introducing one for the first time this year.)

It's not as good as the Melbourne Festival

The Melbourne Festival, on the other hand, was a fortnight of high cultural experiences, covering the cutting edge to the established and best of the best, often including overseas acts that otherwise could not be afforded. Founded as part of the Spoleto Festival of Three Worlds, it was one of most the respected festivals and most significant cultural events in Australia. It was abolished with no public consultation. A whale among festivals, it has been swallowed up by a minnow.

The name

While the organisers could not have known that the word “rising” would have so many connotations when they first dreamed it up, it is now unfortunate. Post-pandemic, it has so many other associations – “Rising” funds for the arts, “rising” after the lockdown, as well as the negative "rising" of interest rates and inflation.

Secondly, what does it mean? To the average punter? Nowhere in the title does it say “festival” or “arts festival”. So what is it?

The above relates to the marketing. Perhaps I am not privy to the media platforms through which the event is being promoted, but I didn’t see much evidence of Rising promotions. As for the associations with the moon and winter – if the event coincides with a full moon it is only by chance, and it doesn't even coincide with the winter solstice. All I see is an identity problem.

The weather

Why have a prolonged outdoor festival in Melbourne in the middle of winter? By keeping White Night short, the gamble was more feasible. The Melbourne Festival originally began earlier in the year but was gradually pushed to later in the year to escape the winter, and even then outdoor events were always risky. So why was that hard-won lesson ignored?

Rising needs a rethink. It needs to decide what it is. It must become something truly worthy of a Melbourne arts festival. If that is what it is.



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